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Is it real? Or is it… a Fauxcumentary?

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader


Over the years a sort of sub film genre has emerged – the faux documentary. These films aren’t quite fiction nor docudrama, they’re something else altogether. Blending fictional elements with a documentary style, these films can best be described as the “fauxcumentary.”

Writer/director Peter Watkins practically invented the fauxcumentary in 1965 with his film The War Game. In Watkins’ film, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union spill over to nuclear war, and an unprepared people of Great Britain must deal with the fallout of this shattering event.

Watkins’ generation would have lived through the real bombings of the Nazi blitz during WWII and this first-hand realism shows in The War Game. The film is shot in a detached style and looks as if it were assembled by some film crew in the future with access to archival footage documenting past events.

Made for British TV, The War Game was so controversial it wasn’t actually shown on TV for over 20 years. After the film was turned down for television audiences, it was released as a feature and won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966.

Watkins would also use the fauxcumentary style in another film of his, Punishment Park (1971). Here, a group of American dissidents in the near future are forced to choose between long prison sentences or a hike through Punishment Park to help train police and National Guardsmen on rounding up other undesirables. Watkins camera follows the dissidents on their hellish trek.

An icon of 1970s fauxcumentaries is The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). In this movie, a film crew documents weird happenings around Boggy Creek where some sort of creature has been terrorizing the population. The whole movie cumulates with an attack by the creature on a home of an unsuspecting family with the viewer at the center of the action. Genuine creepiness pervades The Legend of Boggy Creek even if today much of the film seems dated.

Different from the work of Watkins, The Legend of Boggy Creek mixes the documentary style with filmed reenactments, to the point where the audience isn’t quite sure what’s real and what’s reenacted.

The bloodiest of all fauxcumentaries is the cult-hit Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the one film that I stopped halfway through for being too disturbing even for “Iron Stomach Ehrmann.” Here, a film crew ventures into the Amazon to shoot a documentary on native tribes people. The crew disappears, and all that anyone is able to recover from their expedition are canisters of film from the uncompleted documentary. The film crew is so evil to the land, animals and peoples of the Amazon that I was actually rooting for the natives by the time I shut Cannibal Holocaust off.

If the plot of Cannibal Holocaust sounds familiar, that’s because writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez used the concept of “found footage” in their fauxcumentary The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Rather than making a cult film few in U.S. would ever see, the movie grossed over $140 million in theaters and became a phenomena worldwide.

The fauxcumentary that resonates most today is This is Spinal Tap (1984). This classic movie documents the fall of Spinal Tap, a heavy metal band being left behind in a changing musical landscape. Shot tongue in cheek style, the film depicts how outlandish it can be backstage of a music tour and why amplifiers need to go to “eleven.” A quote by David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) so eloquently sums up This is Spinal Tap, “It's such a fine line between stupid, and clever.” This is Spinal Tap is certainly more clever than stupid.

The core of the actors who comprised the Spinal Tap band is still making movies today. Their fauxcumentary A Mighty Wind (2003) was nominated for an Academy Award and their next movie For Your Consideration is due in theaters at the end of November.

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